Learning to Talk

Dear Mr. Dad: I have a 1-year old who says only two words: mama and dada. My best friend’s son is two months younger and she’s constantly bragging about his vocabulary. It’s driving me crazy—and it’s making me worry that there might be something wrong with my child. When do children start talking? Do they all talk around the same time? Is there any way I can assist my child to talk sooner?

A: As with walking and most other developmental milestones, there’s no fixed time for children to start talking, and what’s “normal” is a big, big range. Some start putting together words as early as nine months; others don’t have much to say until they’re two. The size of the vocabulary and the child’s age when words start tumbling out of his mouth is no indication of intelligence (Albert Einstein supposedly was nearly silent until age four).There’s definitely a luck-of-the-draw component here, but here are a few things that may speed things along.

• Can the baby talk. Your natural voice is best, because it exposes the baby to English as it’s actually spoken. For some reason I’ve never been able to understand, many people can’t bring themselves to speak naturally to a baby. Instead, they put on a huge fake smile and say things like “cootchi-cootchie widduw baby-poo, can I pinchy-winchy your cheeky-weeky?” Is that really how you want your baby to learn to speak?
• Put away the videos and get out a book. Recent research found that babies who spend a lot of time watching Baby Einstein and other videos actually have smaller vocabularies than kids who get less screen time. By contrast, children who have been read to enter school with larger vocabularies, longer attention spans, and have the fewest troubles learning to read, says Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook.
• Encourage and expand. If your baby says “ba-ba,” don’t just leave it at that. Instead, respond with a full sentence, something like, “Do you want your bottle?” Or “Yes, that’s a sheep,” depending on what you think he means.
• Explain everything. If you’re feeding your baby, talk about the food, color, taste, how messy his face is. If you’re outside, talk about traffic, weather, trees, and construction sites. Sure, it’s old news to you, but to your baby it’s all brand-new
• Don’t lecture. Just speak in a casual, conversational tone, using full sentences and a vocabulary that’s a little above where you think your baby is.
• Keep “No” and “Don’t” to a minimum. I know, it’s hard, but try anyway. To start with, those terms are awfully broad—if you say No or Don’t, your baby may not understand what you mean. All she really knows is that you’re unhappy with her. Too many Nos and Don’ts will discourage creativity and exploration. Instead, give some details, like, “Knives are sharp, and they aren’t for babies,” or “It’s not safe to try to put Mommy’s hairpins into the electrical outlets.” Of course all your outlets are safely covered up, but you know what I mean.

Try to incorporate all of these steps into your everyday routine. Of course, there’s no guarantee that they’ll jump start your child’s vocabulary (although reading and turning off the TV will definitely help). But there’s absolutely no downside to trying them out as often as you can. If your baby shows a sudden desire to join Toastmasters, great. If not, the two of you will have spent some wonderful time building a closer bond with each other, and that’s always a good thing.

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